There is nothing quite like a Studio Ghibli film. While most of the animation world is sliding towards 3-D animation, Japan has yet to make the move, and with good reason. Studio Ghibli can make a 2-D film look gorgeous. From Up on Poppy Hill is probably one of the best looking films you will see all year, and while it has definite flaws, it shows that Goro Miyazaki can put his skills as a landscape artist to good use.
From Up on Poppy Hill is fundamentally an atmospheric high school drama set in the year leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But don’t let the genre fool you. This movie has none of the ridiculous melodrama of 90210 or the absurdity of most Japanese anime. Miyazaki Jr. and Elder chose to take a realistic and mellow tone with this film as it shows life as a teenage girl in Japan during the 1960s.
The movie works around the life of Umi, a 16-year-old girl who provides for the three generations of family living in her home. She cooks, she cleans and raises the signal flags for the nearby harbour.However, her normal routine is disrupted by the culture club. In the middle of her lunch break, they put up signs asking people to save their clubhouse, the Quartier Latin. One of their members jumps off the roof and into a nearby pond. Umi runs up to see if the boy is okay. And so Umi meets Shun, the boy who will follow Umi throughout the rest of the film.
It is largely a student versus society story. Umi and Shun fight for to keep the clubhouse from being torndown simply because it is old. It is an intimately nostalgic film about the leads’ father issues and their relationship with the potentially murky past. This makes it almost a perfect match for the father and son team of Goro and Hayao Miyazaki.
It’s just unfortunate that it is a very predictable film. It is fairly easy to guess your way through the movie’s plot just from the opening thirty minutes. From Up on Poppy Hill also has no truly exhilarating moments. It has ups and downs, but for the most part the tone remains constant. There is no antagonists in this movie, simply challenges and it really is just a movie about a Japanese girl’s life. While this lack of conflict by no means breaks the film, it does make it difficult to recommend to everyone.
The constant tone does however provide for some alluring atmosphere. The animation is beautiful, and the amount of detail that goes into every shot is outstanding. In a scene where Umi is looking at a painting, you can see the texture of individual brush strokes. And within the clubhouse, you can see the grain of the wood and the slight tints in the coloured windows. Despite being in 2-D, the animation is easily as strong as any Pixar film.
The sound design is just as good. It adds a weight to everything on screen. Footsteps sound heavy across a wooden floor and you can hear the difficulty of climbing the titular Poppy Hill. Furthermore, the music helps translate ideas across cultural boundaries. When the fans of the Quartier Latin appear, swing music plays in the background. Though the viewer may not know what a cultural club is, they hear the music and immediately make the connection to movies like Grease. A lightbulb goes off that says, “Oh, this is where all the cool stuff happens.”
From Up on Poppy Hill is a clear improvement over Goro’s last film, Tales of the Earthsea, though it still isn’t quite up to snuff. This movie has humour and atmosphere, but there are a couple awkward and predictable moments that could have been played off better. Yet, it is hard not to recommend trying the movie. From Up on Poppy Hill is rather like reading a scenic picture book about Japanese life. At the very least, it pulls you into another world.
From Up on Poppy Hill screens at TIFF on Saturday, September 17 at 3:15 p.m. at the Scotiabank.
Cast: Masami Nagasawa, Jun’ichi Okada, Teruyuki Kagawa
Directed by: Goro Miyazaki
Top image: A scene from From Up on Poppy Hill. Courtesy Studio Ghibli.